Home Managing Disasters: Integrating Armed Forces in NDMA Structure

Managing Disasters: Integrating Armed Forces in NDMA Structure

The floods and ensuing tragedy at Uttarakhand last year brought to the fore, the cyclic unresponsive nature and under preparedness of the national and state machinery while dealing with disasters. The Uttarakhand devastation highlighted the half-hearted and uncoordinated response of the civil administration and the disaster management structures, both at the national and state level. It was the herculean effort of the Indian Army and Indian Air Force with over 11000 soldiers, variety of aircraft and equipment who rescued approximately 63000[i] stranded pilgrims and escorted them to safety. Waves of sorties coupled with valiant effort of foot soldiers working 24x7 saved precious lives. The silent and unsung heroes went about their task in an organised and professional manner bringing solace and relief to the needy. The poignant photographs give a heartwarming account of their commitment and bravery. In contrast, the designated disaster management apparatus had around 12 teams[ii] of NDRF and a sprinkling of state disaster rescue teams apart from around 1600 men of ITBP.

India due to its unique geo-climatic conditions, size and geographical entities has a high incidence of natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, cyclones and so on. Almost half the country is prone to earthquakes of medium to high intensity. Floods in North East India and in states of Assam, West Bengal and Bihar are a recurring phenomena every year. It has been seen that since establishment of NDMA in 2005, there has not been any worthwhile capacity enhancement in managing disasters and the responsibility is always shouldered by Army and Air Force contingents every year.

The basic responsibility of rescue and providing relief during occurrence of a disaster is of the state government. The effort is supplemented by the centre by providing additional logistical support in terms of specialist teams of armed forces and other agencies along with the necessary equipment. An analysis of all rescue efforts during the recent disasters shows that the majority of rescue teams every year are derived from the armed forces, which function under the Ministry of Defence where as the National Executive Committee (NEC) headed by the Home Secretary is responsible for coordination of all rescue efforts. This mismatch results in no organized role for the armed forces in the disaster management process. The NEC, highest body for planning the response mechanism to disasters did not meet from 2008 to 2012[iii] showcased the casual government response to managing disasters.  The National Disaster Plan (NDP), planned to provide a comprehensive and detailed arrangement for disaster management has not been formalized till date. The NDMA is presently only providing guidelines and policies, which are inadequate for mitigating and formulating an effective response to disasters. The massive organisation staffed by retired personnel, multiple committees from various ministries has rendered the organisation ineffective. Numerous projects approved and commenced were either abandoned midway or it was a duplication of effort as reported in the CAG report[iv] tabled in March 2013.  With many states of our nation being prone to natural disasters like floods, earthquakes and so on, it is essential that tangible efforts be made to minimize the impact of a disaster similar to Uttarakhand tragedy. Some of the areas requiring immediate focus are discussed below.

Structural Changes

The NDMA being the Apex body in disaster management, it must be the hub of forecasting, early warning, detailed planning, systematic deployment of rescue resources, continuous monitoring and assistance during the rehabilitation phase. Its members must be serving personnel and the organization must not become post retirement benefit location. As the armed forces have the largest pool of disciplined and dedicated manpower and are always the first respondents, the NDMA must be headed by a three star general directly responsible to the Prime Minister. The members of NDMA of the rank of additional director general must comprise of representatives from Armed forces, Meteorological Department, CWC, ISRO among others to present a comprehensive response plan and not merely issue guidelines. A detailed NDP must be worked out and promulgated within the next two years taking into being the inherent capabilities of various organisations.  NDMA’s response centre, NDMOC must be a integrated responsive nerve-centre working 24x7, in direct communication with state level centres for effective information sharing and coordinating rescue efforts. There must be an in-house capability of simulating likely disasters and their effects on the affected area so that correct remedial and early warning actions can be taken.

Regional Disaster Management Grid                                               A number of battalions of army and CAPFs along with their regional headquarters are located all over the country. They must be integrated together to form a regional disaster management grid. Each state should work out its disaster prone areas requiring assistance, like the flood prone areas and allocate and place resources nearby for faster deployment. The highest headquarter, irrespective of the organisation must be the local controlling headquarters. The regional grids must be in direct communication with the NDMOC and the state response centres. The regional grids must form part of the NDP. The present separate standing organisation of NDRF will then not be required as its force levels are inadequate to meet the national requirement.

Resource Integration                                                                 There was a multitude of agencies like the Army, Air Force, ITBP, NDRF, state agencies, NGOs, private groups etc deployed in the disaster zone during Uttarakhand floods. All agencies were working independently, passing information in their own chain of command and coordinating relief as a standalone group. The synergy between various agencies was lacking. The armed forces being an organized, disciplined and capable force are always the first respondents during any natural calamity due to their expertise, outlook and tendency of the local administration to seek assistance at the first instance of a disaster. Hence, it is imperative that their application be closely integrated with the state resources for a comprehensive response strategy.

Singular Control                                                                               A large number of agencies during Uttarakhand relief efforts led to diversion and under utilisation of resources and low levels of coordination. In addition, comments and views by numerous personalities in print and visual media presented a distorted view of the scale of the disaster and relief operations. It is imperative that all resources be at the disposal of a single nominated person. Given the fact, that Army will always be the first respondent, the senior most Army Officer must be the controlling authority for relief operations. The very presence of Army Commander Central Command at various relief camps and his long walk with the stranded pilgrims was morale booster for all and was leadership at its best

Collective Training

The armed forces have become the first to enter and last to leave the disaster area due to their inherent superior training, equipment and logistic capability. The teams move into the disaster area without any background information and are working with different organisations to rescue maximum people. There is no organized training for the armed forces in disaster management and the troops have to rely on available scanty information. Ideal situation would be to utilise the expertise of existing institutes like the National Institute of Disaster Management so that they can train with personnel of other organisations to have better synergy in disaster areas.

The Uttarakhand disaster highlighted the incorrect handling by NDMA and corresponding state agencies. The negligible response mechanism added to the woes of the people. Lack of accountability seems to be a major contributing factor in the present structure. Not a single person was dismissed or strictures passed for poor response. It is prudent that there is a rethink on the role of NDMA and the state structures. There is an overwhelming need for amalgamation of the armed forces in disaster management structures at the apex level for an organized, quick and efficient response mechanism.


The author is Senior Fellow at CLAWS. Views expressed are personal.

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Ashwani Gupta
Former Senior Fellow
Contact at: [email protected]
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